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In the early 19th Century, a robust Reformation movement dubbed the Stone-Campbell movement sought to restore the ancient gospel to the whole Christendom. The movement comprised of religious factions dissenting mainstream doctrines to pursue freedom in worship based on the New Testament faith. However, fractures in the 20th Century due to the inability to resolve theological differences resulted in distinct movements with conflicting views on issues of worship. The fractures could be ascribed to the conflicting theological perspectives on the application of the Restoration hermeneutic in the church. Therefore, in attempting to unify denominations, Alexander Campbell just created more denominations, including the Christian Churches, Churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ.
Background and Early Life of Campbell
Alexander Campbell spent his early life in Ireland before immigrating into the USA. He was born in 1788 to Thomas and Jane Campbell.1 Alexander’s early doctrinal views could be attributed to his family setup and university education in Scotland. His father, Thomas Campbell, was an ordained Presbyterian Church minister and a proprietor of a school where A. Campbell studied. In 1808, the family temporarily settled in Glasgow, Scotland, on route to the US. In Glasgow, Campbell enrolled at the University of Glasgow where he studied philosophy, Greek, and literature.2 While at the university, Campbell first learnt about the foundations of Reformed theology and Renaissance.3 In 1809, Campbell faced a spiritual crisis over Presbyterian Communion practices. He refused to partake in the Presbyterian Communion, effectively severing ties with this church.
After arriving in the USA and reuniting with his father, Campbell reformation agenda gained momentum. The Campbells first renounced Presbyterianism through the Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington.4 This action set the foundations for the reformation movement and aberrant doctrinal views. In 1811, the Association was transformed into the Brush Run Church with Thomas and Alexander as ordained as its elder and preacher, respectively. The new church sought to bring unity across denominational lines, but it differed doctrinally with the Redstone Baptist Association on theological issues such as immersion baptism.5 The theological differences led to the expulsion of Alexander and Reformed Baptists from the Association.
Alexander’s estrangement from the American Presbyterian Church after his “Sermon on the Law” gave forth the Reformation.6 It marked a culmination of Campbell’s philosophical journey from his time in the University of Glasgow, Scottish Presbyterian Church, to the Declaration and Address. However, the Campbellite heresy, though predicated on denominational unity, resulted in church divisions due to a failure to address theological differences.
Ministry and Writings of Campbell and People Who Influenced Him
Campbell’s work and ministry began 1811 when he became an ordained preacher of the Brush Run Church. The church’s membership with the Redstone Baptist Association in 1815 gave Campbell a platform to preach his revolutionary doctrinal views to the Association members. Specifically, his keynote sermon to the association, i.e., the ‘Sermon on the Law’ differed from the Baptist theological foundations. He continued his ministry until 1830, preaching in various Baptist churches across the Kentucky, Ohio, and Virginia, among others. His criticism of the “paid clergy and use of creed or doctrinal statements” in Baptist churches antagonized him with the members precipitating his expulsion.7
Campbell’s writings featured in the Christian Baptist journal between 1823 and 1830.8 His writings centered on the message of uniting denominations through a “restoration of Christian primitivism”.9 Campbell’s monthly column carried by the journal advised congregations to root for a change in worship practices to restore the ‘ancient gospel’. Thus, in his writings, he communicated his perspectives on the gospel truths that defined the origins of the Churches of Christ. Later, he launched ‘The Millennial Harbinger’ to advance his ideas of restoration.10 Besides releasing publications, Campbell engaged in many debates with Presbyterian reformers and Catholic bishops to further his call for a return of primitivism.
Several people influenced Campbell’s ideas and consistent call for the restoration of Christian primitivism. The Reformed confession of faith as practiced by the “Old-Light, Anti-burgher, Seceder Presbyterianism” was influential Campbell’s theological perspectives as a teenager.11 Campbell stint at the University of Glasgow before immigrating to America also shaped his theological perspective. At the university, Campbell interacted with an Independent church reformist named Greville Ewing. According to Hatch, Campbell’s ideas on church structuring and celebration of the Lord’s Supper had roots in Ewing’s teachings.12
At the University, Campbell also absorbed the ideas of Scottish Rationalists such as George Jardine, Locke, and Thomas Raid that emphasized that each person can make common sense conclusions on theological foundations. He was also exposed to the ideas of Robert Sandeman on the qualities of the saving faith. Sandemanianism held that the saving faith is a “mental assent or head belief”.13 Its influence is evident in Campbell’s teachings that baptism finishes the “process of salvation”.14 His unique theological perspective is embodied in his ‘Sermon on the Law’ that distinguished church traditions from the gospel.
Influence Campbell Had
Campbell was passionate about reforming Christendom through a return to the ‘ancient gospel’; however, his aberrant doctrines caused the greatest religious disruption in Church/Baptist history.
Campbell’s impact on church history relates to his emphasis of reliance on Scripture to define church practices. The Stone-Campbell restoration movement sought to return church practices to the New Testament teachings. The impetus for this movement was the shibboleth: “where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent”, meaning that the Church can only derive its authority from Scripture alone.15 In this view, Campbell opposed church traditions and sought to establish a church founded on biblical truths.
Campbell sought the truth in the sphere of baptism. Campbell opposed the conversion narrative held by the Protestant churches believing that it is only through immersion baptism that a convert experiences full salvation. As a result, Matthias Luce baptized him in 1812 by immersion in the Brush Run church according New Testament teachings.16 Besides his heretic beliefs on baptism, Campbell held unorthodox views on faith. He considered faith an “effect of Almighty power and regenerating grace” as opposed to a fruit of spiritual renewal.17 His notion of faith was that it is a firm persuasion derived from the Scriptures. The conservatives in the movement accepted Campbell’s views causing disagreements over a number of issues.
Campbell and his father at first had no clear comprehension of the role of baptism. The first Campbellite church was established based on the foundations of immersion baptism. Thus, the Restoration Movement had its roots in immersion. However, the Campbells had differing views about the place of infant baptism. In particular, they could not agree whether infant baptism was a necessity in salvation.18 These disagreements precipitated and the failure to address them precipitated the breakup of the movement in 1906 into many denominations.
Nugent argues that the causes of the disintegration were related to inherent social diversity in Restoration Movement churches in the height of the Civil War.19 In particular, Campbell’s advocacy for primitivism stood in the way of ecumenicity. Some historians hold the view that the disharmony in the Restoration Movement after his death could be attributed to his teachings.20 His views established conflicting traditions within the Restoration Movement. On one side was the ecumenical movement driven by the desire to unify all Protestant churches. The second one was the restoration movement that wanted a return to the 1st Century church. Nugent compiles a catalog of denominations with roots in the Restoration Movement. He notes that the original purpose of this movement was to create denominational unity, but this focus was altered to “primitivism as a tool to realize the goal of ecumenicity”.21 Therefore, the divergent theological perspectives within the movement stood in the way of denominational unity.
Specifically, the denominational differences in “the use of inferences and Biblical silence” indicated the conflicting traditions held by the conservatives and liberals.22 The conservatives emphasized on the reliance of Scripture to reclaim the 1st Century church. However, this perspective could not foster denominational unity. The call for the restoration of the 1st Century church later metamorphosed into the Churches of Christ.23 On the other hand, the ecumenical thinking within the movement evolved into the Christian churches. The churches developing from ecumenical thinking could not hold because of lack of primitivism focus.
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Besides the ecumenicity/primitivism angle, Campbell’s perspective on apocalypticism also contributed to the tension in the movement. Heine holds that the apocalypticism seen in modern churches has its roots in the 19th Century Stone-Campbell Churches.24 The tension stemmed from conflicting “eschatological teachings and beliefs” of Campbell.25 Further, Campbell had a firm conviction of the existence of post-millennialism. In contrast, Stone, whose perspectives formed the foundations of the Stone-Campbell movement, believed in apocalyptic pre-millennialism.26 The contrasting perspectives inherent in the movement evolved into disagreements over missionary societies and instrumental music in churches, among others.
The conflicting perspectives held by Stone and Campbell would later penetrate the conservative and liberal groups within the movement. Connellsville Church was among the first churches to question the relevance of missionary societies given that the church was the only institution through which one can serve God.27 Later, other Churches raised similar objections to missionary society and instrumental music creating a divide between the churches in the North and South. Thus, while the south rejected missionary societies and worship instruments to express their dedication to the apocalyptic faction, churches in the north did not. Instead, they advocated for the introduction of instrumental music in worship and formation of missionary societies to express their commitment to human progress.
Another cause of the fracture in the movement related to handling “inferences and biblical silence”.28 According to Olbricht, the Restoration narrative was appealing at first because it abolished most of the prerequisites for admission to Christianity, including vetting of members to partake in the Communion.29 Thus, though the movement abolished the unbiblical church traditions through an emphasis of reliance on Scripture, it created a vacuum that allowed unsanctioned practices to enter the church. This led to incompatible practices without “approved precedent” being introduced into the church by rival groups.30 Over time, the tension heightened when the moderates expanded the scope of Reformation movement to include inferences and liberty in love.31 On the other hand, the conservatives became increasingly selective and refused to admit inferences due to Scriptural silence. Thus, the divide between the conservatives and the moderates became increasingly wider as each faction adopted conflicting ideas on issues of worship and doctrine.
Garrett holds that the reactions of the church members during Campbell’s Restoration movement indicate the tough choices they confronted.32 In particular, Lipscomb and McGarvey, the leading voices of the Restoration movement, rejected the introduction of musical instruments in churches.33 However, while Lipscomb and his group left the mainstream church due to incompatible theological views, McGarvey chose to stay. Thus, the deserters lost the vision of Christian unity and love as embodied in the foundations of the movement.
Garrett contends that both the conservatives and the moderates adopted the slogan, “in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty”.34 However, the two factions could not define the essentials, causing tensions that led to separations. Therefore, Alexander Campbell impacted on church history by creating the Restoration movement that called for a return to the essentials of the ancient gospel. However, his aberrant doctrinal views and failure to define the essentials pitted the conservatives against the moderates, creating a rift in the movement. Consequently, the movement broke up into three churches with differing hermeneutic foundations, namely, the Christian Churches, Churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ.
Campbell’s aberrant doctrinal teachings had a devastating impact on the Southern Baptist church. As Thomas Olbricht writes, the Campbellite heresy stands out as the leading cause schism of the Baptist Church in history.35 Although Campbell could be considered a Baptist given that Matthew Luce, a Baptist preacher, baptized him, his views were incompatible with Baptists beliefs. Despite calling for denominational unity, his followers established a new church, the Disciples of Christ in 1830. His Brush Run Church was admitted to the Redstone Baptist Association despite Campbell’s disagreement with the church’s practices. His motivation was to restore the New Testament practices.
Campbell influenced Baptist history through his doctrinal views on the definition of the saving faith and the works of the Holy Spirit in relation to baptism. His doctrinal views were influenced by philosophical ideas of the people he had interacted with during his time in Scotland. In particular, the Sandemanianism, which influenced Campbell’s doctrine, held that the saving faith is comparable to “mental assent” to a proposition.36 As a result, Campbell believed that full salvation requires immersion baptism. Baptists practice the Campbellite immersion baptism as a testimony of a faith.
Campbell’s teachings greatly reduced the place of the Holy Spirit. According to Nugent, based on the writing accounts of Kentucky’s Franklin Association, it is through baptism that the “Holy Spirit is invited to work on the mind”.37 Therefore, salvation is only achieved through baptism. This resonates with the theological foundations of the Baptist Church. However, Campbell’s perspectives on Scripture represented a point of divergence from the Baptist doctrine. His ‘Sermon on the Law’ elicited controversy in the Baptist ministry because of it rejected the “binding authority of the Old Testament on Christians”.38 While this view resonated well with the dispensationalists, it contravened the Baptist practices and traditions. Campbell held that all church traditions must have a Scriptural precedent or a basis on the New Testament. In this way, Campbell effectively opposed missionary societies, the introduction of musical instruments into the church, and paid clergymen, among others.
Campbell’s aberrant teachings, though focused on unifying churches across denominational lines, caused divisions in the Southern Baptist church. Historians reckon that over a half of the Kentuckian Baptist churches joined the Disciples of Christ established by Campbell’s followers in 1930.39 Many local Baptist associations fragmented as some churches broke up while others embraced new doctrinal persuasions. Thus, Campbell contributed to the divisions of the Southern Baptist Associations, including that of Kentucky, creating a religious schism never witnessed before. A good illustration of Campbell’s factious impact on Baptist Churches relates to the Buffalo Ridge Church of Tennessee. The church was established in 1779 with a congregation of about 300 people, which was considered high at the time.40 The Campbellite heresy nearly decimated this number as only less than 30 people attended Sunday services. Thus, it can be argued that Campbell’s unorthodox doctrine impacted negatively on the Baptist unity and denominational ecumenicity in later years.
Campbell’s doctrine emphasized on church primitiveness or the ancient order based on New Testament scriptures. In Campbell’s view, the Restoration meant a complete removal of unbiblical traditions from the church and a complete restructuring of church. However, the failure to delineate the alternative practices gave way to conflicting ideas between conservative and moderate factions. The tensions in the Restoration hermeneutic over worship services created more divisions and denominations, subjugating the ecumenical thinking behind the movement.
Campbell, Alexander S. The Christian Baptist. Joplin: College Press, 2003.
Duke, James O. “The Theology and Hermeneutics of the Early Stone-Campbell Movement.” Stone-Campbell Journal 12, no. 11 (2009): 3-13.
Fletcher, David B. Alexander Campbell on Christians Among the Sects: Baptism and the Remission of Sins. Joplin: College Press, 1990.
Garrett, Leroy F. The Stone-Campbell Movement: An Anecdotal History of Three Churches. Joplin: College Press Publishing Company, 1983.
Hall, Gary M. “A Critique of the Place of the Place of the Old Testament in the Early Historical Perspective of the Stone-Campbell Movement: Campbell through Lipscomb.” Stone-Campbell Journal 5, no. 1 (2002): 25-47.
Hatch, Nathan O. The Christian Movement and the Demand for a Theology of the People.
American Origins of the Churches of Christ: Three Essays on Restoration History. Abilene: ACU Press, 2000.
Heine, Ronald E. “Alexander Campbell and the Old Testament.” Stone-Campbell Journal 5, no. 2 (2002): 163-181.
Nugent, John C. “Was Alexander Campbell Enslaved to Scottish Baconianism?” Stone-Campbell Journal 12, no. 1 (April 2009): 15-30.
Olbricht, Thomas H. “The Holy Spirit in the Early Restoration Movement.” Stone-Campbell Journal 7, no. 1 (October 2004): 3-26.
Webb, Henry E. In Search of Christian Unity: A History of the Restoration Movement. Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1990.
- David B. Fletcher, Alexander Campbell on Christians Among the Sects: Baptism and the Remission of Sins (Joplin: College Press, 1990), 67.
- Ibid., 74.
- Webb E. Henry, In Search of Christian Unity: A History of the Restoration Movement (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1990), 103.
- Ibid., 106.
- Duke O. James, The Theology and Hermeneutics of the Early Stone-Campbell Movement, Stone-Campbell Journal 12, no. 11 (2009): 7.
- Leroy F. Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement: An Anecdotal History of Three Churches (Joplin: College Press Publishing Company, 1983), 118.
- Ibid., 121.
- Ibid., 124.
- Nathan O. Hatch, The Christian Movement and the Demand for a Theology of the People. American Origins of the Churches of Christ: Three Essays on Restoration History (Abilene: ACU Press, 2000), 78.
- Ibid., 83.
- Ibid., 84.
- Garrett, 122.
- Ibid., 123.
- Hatch, 81.
- Alexander S. Campbell, The Christian Baptist (Joplin: College Press, 2003), 54.
- Ronald E. Heine, Alexander Campbell and the Old Testament, Stone-Campbell Journal 5, no. 2 (2002): 168.
- Ibid., 173.
- Ibid., 182.
- John C. Nugent, Was Alexander Campbell Enslaved to Scottish Baconianism?, Stone-Campbell Journal 12, no. 1 (2009): 17.
- Ibid., 18.
- Ibid., 21.
- Ibid., 19.
- Ibid., 18.
- Heine, 168.
- Ibid., 171
- Ibid., 170.
- Ibid., 172.
- Heine, 169.
- Olbricht H. Thomas, The Holy Spirit in the Early Restoration Movement, Stone-Campbell Journal 7, no. 1 (2004): 8.
- Ibid., 12.
- Ibid., 17.
- Garrett, 119.
- Gary M. Hall, A Critique of the Place of the Place of the Old Testament in the Early Historical Perspective of the Stone-Campbell Movement: Campbell through Lipscomb, Stone-Campbell Journal 5, no.1 (2002): 27.
- Garrett, 121.
- Olbricht, 11.
- Hatch, 88.
- Nugent, 22.
- Ibid., 25.
- Ibid., 26.
- Fletcher, 72.